Leaving limbo

National | More kids exit foster care for permanent adoptive families, but pro-lifers hope for more

Issue: "Ashcroft: Under fire," Jan. 13, 2001

As she trudged along a four-lane highway in Clarksville, Tenn., Torina Arnold thought about suicide. Two of her children-Rebecca, 3, and Christian, 2-walked beside her. She cradled 10-week-old Johnny in her arms. As the little family headed toward the Highway 48 Bridge, Ms. Arnold pictured the long fall from it into the Cumberland River. Then a police cruiser rolled up. When officers asked Ms. Arnold where she was going, she told them: to throw her three children off the bridge first, then make the leap herself.

That was 1994, and police were able to talk Ms. Arnold out of her desperate plan. The Tennessee Department of Child Services (DCS) immediately removed Rebecca, Christian, and Johnny from their mother's care and placed them in foster care with Barry Stokes, a Tennessee financial planner, and his wife Pamela.

Meanwhile, a psychiatrist diagnosed Ms. Arnold with "major depression-recurrent, severe and with psychotic features." A DCS investigation revealed that the children had been exposed to drug abuse, and that Ms. Arnold was unable to hold a job or a place to live. DCS created a "reunification plan" for Ms. Arnold and her kids that included counseling and rehabilitation for Ms. Arnold.

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Now, more than six years later, the children have grown with the Stokeses from diapers to elementary school. But despite attempts by the Stokeses to adopt them, Rebecca, now 9, Christian, 8, and Johnny, 6, still don't have a permanent home.

Trying to reduce the number of children consigned to such protracted limbo in the foster care system, Congress in 1997 passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). Lawmakers designed the legislation to speed the adoption process, sharpen regulations related to the health and safety of displaced children, and reauthorize funding for family preservation and rehabilitation programs. Since the act passed, the number of adoptions finalized for kids in foster care has increased by about 50 percent, from about 28,000 in 1996 to 42,375 in 1999. But despite the increase, adoption policy analysts say the legislation may not be shortening the length of time that foster kids spend without a permanent place to call home.

"We know that adoptions have increased. What we don't know is whether those kids were in the pipeline all along, or whether their adoptions were directly attributable to ASFA," said Cassie Statuto Bevan, a staffer with the House Ways and Means Committee whose research helped to shape ASFA. The Government Accounting Office tried to find out in 1999 through a 50-state survey of ASFA's early effects. Forty-seven states responded with some data, but only 12 states could readily provide information on specific actions taken on behalf of individual children. Adoption advocates are concerned that some state child welfare agencies have been slow to comply with-or may have even circumvented-key provisions of ASFA related to expediting adoption for kids.

"We're concerned that much of the states' movement on ASFA has been 'paper compliance,'" said Patrick Purtill, president of the National Council for Adoption. "They've changed the laws on the books to comply with the new federal requirements, but haven't changed much in practice."

He may be right. ASFA provided some bureaucratically palatable adoption-expediting incentives, like opening up adoptions across jurisdictional boundaries and giving extra money to states that show an increase in the number of adoptions. But it also mandated that states review all existing foster care cases-about half a million files in total-to determine a permanency plan for each child. In addition, the law required states to terminate the parental rights of parents whose children had been in foster care for 15 of the preceding 22 months. Termination of parental rights, or "TPR," frees a child for legal adoption by relatives or nonrelatives. It's a mandatory step for a child on the road to a permanent adoptive home.

By July 1999, all states had enacted laws to implement ASFA, according to the GAO. But only 27 were on pace to comply with ASFA's case-review timeline. And of the 12 states that could provide data on termination of parental rights, all but three-Arizona, Iowa, and Missouri-had exempted between two-thirds and three-fourths of all children from TPR petitions, thus keeping the kids in foster care. Vermont exempted 9 out of 10 children. The exemptions were legal, since Congress left states free to decide against TPR if they found "compelling reasons" not to pursue termination. But Mr. Purtill believes that "when the exception becomes the rule, you have to wonder what's going on. States have to have latitude to interpret and apply ASFA, but when latitude is exercised in a majority of cases, you have to wonder if state agencies are complying with the spirit of the law."


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